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Q&A: Gen. Uzi Dayan

Israel’s lead security negotiator talks about the end of Oslo and the future of annexation

David Samuels
June 12, 2014
Uzi Dayan in the Judean desert overlooking the Jordan Valley, January 2014.(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
Uzi Dayan in the Judean desert overlooking the Jordan Valley, January 2014.(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

In another country, in another life, Uzi Dayan would be a professor of systems engineering at MIT. In Israel during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, he is Moshe Dayan’s smart nephew, who proved his courage as commander of the legendary Sayeret Matkal before serving as head of the IDF’s Central Command and then as Deputy Commander of the IDF.

As national security adviser to Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, Dayan got a firsthand look at how political decisions are made in modern Israel, which left him with a bad taste in his mouth. Heading up Israeli negotiating teams on security-related issues with the Palestinians, the Jordanians, and the Syrians over the past 20 years has also given him a long-term firsthand acquaintance with Israel’s prospective partners for peace.

Dayan’s firmly held perspective—that the Oslo peace process is dead and that any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis will be a unilateral one—may come as a surprise to Secretary of State John Kerry, and to most people in the West who read daily newspaper stories about the ups and downs of something called “the peace process.” But his view is in fact shared by majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians who, according to recent polls presented at the Herzliya Conference, continue to believe in a two-state solution but are unable to agree on the minimal contours of what such a solution might look like.

As a result, both Israelis and Palestinians favor unilateral moves: Palestinians want to gain recognition for a Palestinian state with their preferred borders through international bodies like the United Nations, while Israelis of wildly differing political persuasions want to set the borders of their own state by withdrawing from outlying settlements on the West Bank and annexing major settlement blocs close to Israel and the Jordan Valley.

The unilateral actions that Israelis and Palestinians are likely to take in the coming months will make it clear that Oslo was, in some deep sense, misguided—a Protestant marriage between Jews and Muslims that made sense to a Western audience but ultimately failed to serve the deeper needs of either side. What will be left, on the Palestinian side, will be the work of convincing Western donors to continue to pay the salaries of a PA government that will be dominated by Hamas, while Israeli politicians try to find other words for “annexation.”

I spoke with Uzi Dayan in Tablet’s conference room, where I offered my guest vodka and a large bloc of halvah. He declined the vodka, while cutting the halvah into tiny squares, which he ate one by one with a knife. By the end of the interview, about a third of the halvah was gone.

The United States has learned an important lesson from Israel, it seems: wildly unequal prisoner swaps.

Israel can learn from the United States, I guess, how to release one prisoner for five bastards and not a thousand bastards. I’m now writing the counter-terrorism doctrine of Israel, and one of the recommendations is going to be that we shouldn’t let terrorists develop the expectation to get so many prisoners for kidnapped soldiers.

The United States announced that it intends to keep doing business with the Palestinian Authority despite the merger agreement with Hamas. How upset, actually, is the Israeli government about the American posture?

I remember in 2009, John Kerry said to Qatar that you can’t have it both ways: You can’t want to be friends of the United States of America and at the same time finance Hamas. Now who is financing Hamas?

For Israel, it’s not something that we are glad about, but if you ask me what Israel is going to do about it, the answer is that Israel is not going to do anything special. We offered Abu Mazen a two-states for two-peoples process, and he ran away at the critical moment of truth. I’m not surprised by that. I was the head of the security committees for the negotiating processes with the Palestinians, the Jordanians, and the Syrians, so I know Abu Mazen pretty well. He thinks that terrorism is not the right way. But he’s not strong enough to dismantle terrorism. And at the same time, he has escaped from this process many times, at least three, four times, whenever it gets serious. The reason that he runs away is that he is not ready to sign an end-of-conflict agreement.

Abu Mazen can go and cry to the U.N., but he is not ready to really solve the issue, because from the best of my understanding, and I’ve spent lots of time with him on it, he believes that he can’t sign an agreement that says, for example, no right of return, because he is then giving up on the dream of the Palestinian diaspora. He won’t sign a paper with an arrangement in Jerusalem, because he will feel like he is giving to the Jews what Saladin freed in 1187. And so on.

After Arafat died I spent about four months in the West Bank and Gaza with all of his close advisers and the leaders of Fatah. I met with everybody—Dahlan, Rajoub, Abbas, Tirawi, Habash, Nafal, Abbas Zaki, and dozens of others. The conclusion that I came to is that there is no Palestinian leader who will ever sign anything that looks like what Israelis and Americans imagine to be an end-of-conflict agreement. Arafat was the only man who could have signed it, but he decided not to. The Oslo process was a well-intentioned moment in history that was over by the year 2000.

There wasn’t such a moment, by the way. I advised Barak not to go to Camp David, and I said, “Arafat will never sign a ‘no more conflict, end of claims’ agreement.”

Barak told me that his goal was to make Arafat take off the mask—

—to expose his real face. It wasn’t his goal. He was hoping that he will sign. I said, “He will never do it.” He said, “You don’t know that.” I said, “True, but you don’t know whether he’s going to sign it.” And he said, “It depends on my partner, on Arafat.” I said, “He won’t sign, and what are we going to do if he won’t sign?” He said, “Then I don’t have a choice, and I have to expose his real face and tell everybody we tried.”

‘There is another problem with annexation, and this is, when you annex something, at the same time you make clear what you don’t annex.’

And you know what I told him? I said, “Look out. You think that this is a good plan, but the guinea pigs in your laboratory won’t cheer when your experiment doesn’t succeed and the whole lab goes in flames. That’s what’s going to happen.” And that’s what happened. So, you are right that there is no Palestinian leader today who will sign a peace agreement that will mean the end of our conflict.

But the public discussion is always about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

You know why? The problem is that for the Israelis, for example, to make a huge territorial compromise and to give up most of the land, you need to have a goal like real peace, OK? And that’s also true for the Palestinians. If you say “interim agreement,” everybody will laugh at you. Politically, you can’t go for something that is less than a perfect agreement. So, the only way to deal with it is to continue to talk about a full agreement but to know that by the end of the day, you will get something that is less than that.

One outcome of Oslo is that the West is now conditioned to the idea that the Palestinian Authority will not spend money to make any kind of large-scale improvements in the lives of their people—they’re off the hook. The Palestinians are the world’s problem now. The world is conditioned to the idea that the Palestinians will not move off of a set of core demands. They’re conditioned to the idea that the peace process has to be played out as a public-relations gesture every year or two in front of the cameras. Meanwhile, Israel sits as the occupying power in the West Bank, year after year, and it’s awful—except it’s still better, year after year, than the alternatives. But if you look at what Israeli negotiating positions were in 1994, if you look at what they are now, over those 20 years there’s been quite a slide, right?

A slide in what?

Rabin was talking about an autonomous Palestinian entity even in late 1995, right? Not a Palestinian state. Now the minimum is a full-fledged Palestinian state, and the debate is over land swaps around the ’67 borders—and everyone knows that the Palestinians will never sign such a deal anyway, because why should they? So, Israel needs to establish that the land behind the security fence belongs to Israel. Israel also needs a permanent security presence in the Jordan Valley, especially now that ISIS has overrun huge chunks of Iraq. The Middle East is not a stable region, the states are lines on paper, the threats are real, and Israel must be able to defend itself if it wants to survive.

So, there are some politicians like Naftali Bennett who are calling openly for Israel to annex area C, and more cautious people like yourself who realize that the international outcry about any kind of formal Israeli annexation of Palestinian land would be terrible. But the solution is the same.

There is another problem with annexation, and this is, when you annex something, at the same time you make clear what you don’t annex. I think that annexation should be a weapon only if there is no other choice, and I don’t think that we are at that moment, actually. We control the area. We don’t control the Palestinians, don’t want to control the Palestinians. And so, I am in favor of unilateral moves, but only if those unilateral moves are going to a kind of a future solution that both sides can accept. And for example, I don’t think that we should give up land in the Jordan Valley, but I don’t think that we should annex it, either—because it will open very bitter problems within Israel and of course in the international arena. It’s not that I think it’s unacceptable. We did it in the Golan Heights.

Think of all the people who wanted to give back the Golan Heights as part of a peace agreement with Syria. How smart do they look now?

We have to bless God every morning that we didn’t pay attention to the good advice of Mr. Olmert to make such a deal. At the same time, for most Israelis, the Golan Heights is Israeli. There are no Palestinians there, there are not Syrians there, there are only some Druze and 2,000 Alawites. All the Alawites are Israeli citizens. With the Druze, only 800 are Israelis.

What I think is very problematic for Israel right now is that you have a large population of people who are not Israeli citizens who have been subjected now for 47 years to often arbitrary military rule by an occupying power. They are denied both the rights and responsibilities of real citizenship, anywhere. That’s unpleasant and corrupting for both sides.

I don’t think that we should control or rule the Palestinians. The best process would have been with mutual unilateral moves, which are silently coordinated. I’m not sure we can do it with Abu Mazen. He is not strong enough politically, and two, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he is not more flexible than Arafat. Actually he is much more rigid.

He lacks the legitimacy that Arafat had.

He lacks the legitimacy but also, personally, he’s pretty square. He’s declarative. Which means that the flag, the title, is very important for him personally, and he believes that it is very important for his people—the Palestinian flag on the walls of Jerusalem, and so on. And there is another problem. When the Israelis want peace, and most of the Israelis want peace, when they say peace, what do they mean? When they say shalom, what do they mean? They mean two things. One is security, full security, sense of security … not even being threatened. And two, Israelis identify peace, shalom, with freedom of movement, everywhere in the region.

The dream of eating hummus in Damascus doesn’t sound so good these days, though.

The Palestinians want a state of their own. But if you ask them what kind of state, they don’t have the organization, they don’t have the concept, the idea. But when they say salaam, they mean two things. One is, “Don’t occupy us.” And, the second, which may be the most important, issue, is a better quality of life—a decent job, clothing, education for the children. They are hard workers. Now, everything that we have done for the past 20 years is politics and security, which are important—but nothing else. And when nothing else happens, I told Rabin in ’94, the people are left behind. When you talk about education, culture, incitement, etc., everybody says, this is your way to avoid getting to the hard issues! But the hard issues are stuck.

Except if I’m Hamas, and I’m looking at a conflict that in my mind could easily go on for 75 or 100 years, I’m thinking in a different kind of historical time, right? My time-span is not the next three months of headlines, my time-span is history books that might be written two centuries from now. So, if my people take a century and a half of struggle to eliminate …

That’s Hamas’ view. That’s not Jibril Rajoub’s view or Dahlan’s view.

But for revolutionaries with historical goals, like the old-time members of Fatah, or today’s Hamas, the existence of large numbers of people who are deprived, who live in poor conditions, and as a result can be encouraged to devote their lives to struggle, is a strategic asset.

The money doesn’t go to those people, because the longer they are living in such a condition, the better it is for the revolution.

On the subject of corruption, how important is it for Israel that Ehud Olmert is going to jail?

Very important. Look, I am not objective about it, because in 2006 I even made a public statement saying that Ehud Olmert is corrupted and his party was a corrupt political move. I even had a party run to the Knesset called Tafnit, and its main point was fighting public corruption.

By the way, I wrote a national security assessment in 2002, and I distributed it, it was top secret in 150 copies, and then I wanted to write 12 pages for the public, and Sharon didn’t let me do it. There was the security fence, there was Iran, there was education, which I said should be national goal No. 1. But there was also one paragraph that said that if the corruption of the leaders will continue, the Israeli people are going to lose their confidence in the country’s leadership. And this is why Sharon was so afraid of it.

I have a note that Ariel Sharon wrote to my son when he was born. It’s a very nice note. I think he was a visionary military and political leader. But he was also corrupt. His sons were corrupt and so was he, on a massive scale.

One of my slogans was that Sharon is not only corrupted, he was “Abba shel hamushchatim,” with his two sons. When I was national security adviser, Omri Sharon once came to me and said, “We need a kind of security clearance to a boat which is sailing out of Eilat.” I said, “This is not my job.” He said, “No, this is very important.” I said, “Which boat?” etc. He said, “It’s a casino boat.” I didn’t know who it belongs to, but I said, “Come on, it’s not my job to do it.”

So, Elyakim Rubinstein came and said, “Come on, Uzi, make a small thing.” I said, “How can I explain that the national security council is dealing with this kind of thing?” He said, “You do it for gas and oil platform in the sea.” I said, “Yeah, that is a question of national resources.” Then Omri came to my office and said, “Uzi, it seems that you don’t understand the family.” I say, “I don’t. What is your position? You are what, the son of the prime minister, or the CEO of Israel?”

Is Bibi corrupt?

To the best of my knowledge, Bibi is not corrupted. I know him pretty well. I was also his commander in the army for four years. He liked the good life. But Sheldon Adelson is dying to have casinos in Israel, and Bibi doesn’t let it, and I cooperate with him on that. He’s not using the country. And he knows that he is under a microscope.

How important for Israel is the election of Modi in India? Do you think it has any strategic importance?

Actually, relations between Israel and India are very good. But we fail to influence, to make an impact, about other things that India does that we don’t like, especially vis-à-vis Iran. I think that Modi will make even better relations between Israel and India, but I’m sorry to say that I don’t believe that he will change the whole policy. And if I am wrong, I’ll be the first one to be very happy to admit it.

Is there an Israeli pivot to Asia that’s been going on for the past few years?

We don’t run the globe like Washington. We try to find friends here and there, connected to, let’s say, Israeli technology or trade. We are not thinking global tectonics. I’ve been to China. They invited us to discuss borders. I say, What do you mean, borders? Are you interested in 30 miles here? They said no, no, you are the only country that in the last 70 years discusses borders on a regular basis. You negotiate borders, you change borders, you kind of mark the borders with the Palestinians, with the Syrians, with the Egyptians, with the Jordanians. There is international law that here you are familiar with, there is security point of view, there is public point of view. They were really interested in it.

And now you see why. Now they’re seizing this whole area in what they call the South China Sea. It’s wasn’t a theoretical discussion.

I’ll tell you what I think I understood. They very much appreciate, respect, what they think is the Jewish mind or the Jewish tradition, the Jewish wisdom. It doesn’t mean that they like the Jews. They respect the Jews. It’s a big difference. When it comes to Israel, I think that they are after the Israeli technology more than everything. They say, “Well, you’re smart enough, you know how to improvise,” and they think they want to copy it, to steal it, etc.

By the way, their main question—we discussed borders, and other issues, I tried to discuss Iran, to tell them that you are making a big mistake—their main question was, can you explain us what the hell—they don’t say the hell, I say the hell—is the American global strategy? They say, “We simply don’t understand what they are doing.” I say, “Why do you think that I’m the one who should explain it?” They said, “You are good friends of the Americans.” By the way, they also think that we run Washington.

I said, “Look, we are very good friends of the Americans, I won’t discuss it here in China. They are an important friend of ours, sometimes we have our differences, but it’s not a thing to discuss here. Don’t ask me about the American policy. Ask the Americans.”

Edward Luttwak, the great strategist, says that Americans look at Israel and they say, “Oh, we have to solve all the problems quick, and then there will be peace and then the society will flourish.” He says it’s actually backwards. He says, “Israel’s like a soup that has to be cooking at a low temperature all the time. If you turn up the flame too high, you destroy the soup. If you turn off the flame, you also destroy the soup.”

This is the problem with proverbs and sayings. A friend in Jerusalem once said to me, “Life is like a cucumber.” I said, “Why a cucumber?” You know what he said? “I don’t know why, but it’s like a cucumber.”

Look, the first one who come up with this idea was the guy who wrote the book called Hatzivui HaterritorialiThe Territorial Commandment, or something like that. His name is Robert Audrey. Find his book [The Territorial Imperative]. It was many years ago, and actually he makes a whole argument about the territorial behavior of animals in general. At the end of the book, he writes that what makes Israel so strong is they have to fight on their territory all the time. This is why they are so strong. He said if one day they will lose the necessity to protect themselves and to defend themselves, many problems will arise that right now are not arising. I hope that we’ll arrive to a day that there will be peace and we will face those other problems.

And two, uncertainty has returned bigtime to the region, and we don’t know what will happen. We have at least one or two generations of civil wars. So, we will continue to fulfill our mission to build a Jewish democratic state. We are the only state and community in the region which is free, democratic, stable, strong economically and from the security point of view. By the end of this era, which will take time, we’ll serve as the role model for the entire Middle East. Because this is actually why all the young people went to Tahrir Square. Israel is their model, even if they don’t and can’t admit it.


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David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, to be published in September by Seuil.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.